The Silent Season

I’ve been playing music for most of my life. Playing music, for me, is largely a social experience. Despite having spent hours and hours practicing alone, the hours spent making music with others are the ones I remember most. I’m accustomed to dedicating at least one night a week to orchestra rehearsals. This time is sacred in my schedule and non-negotiable. I also block off weekends, and some week nights, throughout the year for performing.

Rehearsing and performing has been part of my life for decades. It felt odd to go through the “silent season” last year. In 2020, the pandemic hit the day before a concert. My orchestra was in the middle of auditioning new conductors. For the audition, each short-listed candidate had six rehearsals and the performance. I was on the selection committee. All the committee members spent hours reviewing and interviewing candidates to arrive at the short list. The timing of the pandemic put an abrupt end to the process and one of my personal lifelines.

Each week I looked forward to rehearsal night. It was a chance to recharge and do something that I love. Normally, we start rehearsing at the end of August until the end of May. I have a number of close “orchestra” friends that I’m fond of seeing every week. Sometimes I see them more than my other friends. I’m usually ready for a few weeks off at the end of the season. But by the end of June, I’m feeling eager to play and lonely for the musical camaraderie. This cycle is built into my natural rhythm. At least it was until the pandemic.

For maybe the second year in a row, I’m facing the possibility of another “silent season.” People coordinated Zoom rehearsals and online playing last season, but it’s not the same. The orchestras I used to play with have been hard at work trying to figure out how we can make music again, safely. And even more importantly, how we can attract an audience to fund the orchestra. I play a wind instrument so masking isn’t an option. Some distancing is possible, though there are limits.

It seems as though we may have to endure for one more season. In the meantime, I’ve been encouraging my family to play music and learn instruments so I’m not lonely playing only for myself.

Looking in the Underwear Drawer

Over the years, I’ve had lots of trials and tribulations working in Records and Information Management (RIM). Curiously, many of them occur when I’m helping someone, or a group of someones, organize their information better. By better, I mean in a way that makes it easy to find things. Or knowing what to save and what to toss.

The process usually starts the same. I ask questions to assess the current problems and desired end state. This part often goes smoothly. Then I ask to look at the current system. This is where things take a turn. People often get very defensive, and almost protective, of their information. Even when they’ve just told me their system doesn’t work. And especially when they’re discussing their work information, which doesn’t have anything personal in it. Or at least it shouldn’t.

I assure people I’m focusing mainly on context rather than content. I explain I’m assessing the process. Honestly, there’s usually so much volume that I don’t have time to read and poke through things, even if I wanted to. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that people treat me like I’m rifling through their underwear drawer. That’s actually the last thing I would ever volunteer, paid or otherwise, to organize for someone else. Even professional nerds like myself have our limits.

What’s so personal about underwear anyway?

This feeling of invading someone’s privacy while trying to fix their information management systems has occurred so often, that it really made me think about it. What is it that feels so personal about an email inbox, document names, and how we describe and nest our file folders?

In some ways, it is personal in the sense that everybody has their own unique way of organizing, naming, and saving their stuff. But at the same time, almost all of my experience is in a business setting. I generally deal with business information that doesn’t contain any personal information. So why do people get so territorial and protective about their stuff, even when it technically belongs to the organization?

My impression is that people know their system of organizing better than anybody else’s. Even when that system is faulty, it’s comfortable and familiar. So when I enter the picture, even with a faster, more intuitive way to organize and find information, it’s different. And that can be a hard sell.

The Universality of the Junk Drawer

Last week one of my reader’s commented that taking care of the niggly things is why we have junk drawers. And it’s true! Sometimes it takes too much brain power, or requires too much energy, or decision making to deal with one thing. That’s when it’s time to open up, or start, a junk drawer. A place to collect this seemingly, random accumulation of stuff. However, there are times when a certain kind of order, weird logic, or pattern appear. I write this as someone who deals with them professionally.

Thinking about junk drawers brought me a kind of relief. The relief that comes with not having to deal with something at that exact moment, but still feeling comforted that it had been handled in some way.

Perhaps this is why:

  1. Everybody seems to have at least one junk drawer. They’re universal.
  2. Nobody needs training on a junk drawer. It’s as though we all know instinctively what a junk drawer is, how it functions, and how to create one.

To me this is similar to using folders. In 10+ years of working as a records & information management professional, I have never had to teach somebody what a folder is, what it is used for, or how to create one. The concept of a folder, or a junk drawer, is universally accepted.

The last time I blogged about Junk Drawers, one of my reader’s commented, with relief, that she was glad I wasn’t recommending getting rid of the junk drawer. There’s definitely a time and place where it’s okay, and even beneficial, to be messy. Even though I love decluttering and organizing, having a junk drawer is one of those time.

The Magic of the Junk Drawer

It’s true. The junk drawer can be a magic place to make annoying things disappear. Hopefully they reappear at the right moment. It can be a place for discovering long, lost treasures. A way to relive a favorite memory. However, they can also become wastelands.

The best strategy is a combination of willful abandon (i.e., get the annoying thing out of sight) and occasional sifting. It’s healthy to go through your junk drawer periodically. Even if the sole reason is to make space for more junk. However, it’s likely you’ll be able to put some stuff away properly. Or at the very least, pass a few pleasurable moments reminiscing.

Taking Care of the Niggly Things: How to Power Through Them

It seems every time I clean up, I always find random scraps and bits that don’t seem to fit anywhere. This happens whether I’m tidying up physical or electronic stuff. For example, I organize emails with folders and labels. However, I usually have at least one email that doesn’t fit anywhere. Then I have a dilemma, do I create a special place for one email? Leave it floating around? Or try to shove it somewhere it doesn’t quite fit hoping to remember where later. 

With electronic stuff, I have the option to search for things using keywords. In the physical world, if I put something somewhere and can’t remember, it’s lost. Usually this results in a time-consuming hunt around the house. 

When these niggly things hang around for too long, I often end up shoving them in a bag or box, in frustration or desperation, as a to-do later. Believe it or not, this strategy has benefits.

Strategy Pros and Cons

  1. The mess is “neatened” up and strategically all located in one place, even if it takes me a while to plow through if I’m looking for something.
  2. I have a starting point when I’m feeling motivated to purge and organize stuff.
  3. It gives me a chance to evaluate if I really need the stuff that didn’t have a home. Chances are if I don’t remember it, or think about it, for months (years), then I probably don’t need it.

There are also downsides to this strategy.

  1. I have to touch something multiple times before making a decision.
  2. The mess isn’t resolved. It just moves around from box to bag to corner to pile.
  3. Finding things is sometimes difficult. Plus the clutter builds up.

Powering Through

The main goal is to make sure I can find things when I need them. Hopefully I can locate them with minimal effort and searching. I like to use a combined strategy.

  1. If I find something unique, I leave it for a while to see if I will receive other things that fit with it. This gives me a solid starting point for organizing the items.
  2. I set my timer for a short period of time over a week to chip away at things with a slow and steady pace.
  3. Finally, when all else fails, bagging stuff up for later works in a pinch as a temporary fix to maintain my sanity.

Tech Success: Hands-Free Driving

Every once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised when tech works (mostly) as expected without a lot of frustration involved. When driving, I frequently hook up my phone to the car. I do this so I can view the map as part of the dashboard display.

Learning how to use it was seamless. And easy! It works (almost) perfectly. When I plan a trip using my phone, I’m able to add multiple stops. This way I can move around the stops to plan the most efficient route. However, when I sync the phone to the car, one of two things happens.

  1. The trip planning from the phone disappears. This means I have to re-enter all my stops.
  2. I still haven’t figured out how to add in more than one stop. This means I have to complete one stop before entering in the next one.

I’m sure it’s possible, but I haven’t figured out which setting controls this.

Managing Audio Controls

I love listening to the radio when I’m driving. Or podcasts. I haven’t yet discovered the magic of audible books, but I’m sure I would love them if I drove on a regular basis.

Initially when I synced my phone to the car, I assumed the radio volume would automatically lower, or stop, when I received navigation instructions. However, this wasn’t the case. It was pretty annoying to hear radio and directions simultaneously. Luckily my keen orchestra-trained ears were able to keep them separate. But still, it was very annoying.

I also love listening to podcasts. Recently I discovered if I play a podcast from my phone through the car’s audio, then the podcast will pause when I receive directions.

The podcast and radio, will also pause if I listen (and reply to) an incoming message. It seems strange to me that the audio adjusts for two types of interruptions, but not all of them. It only pauses for the ones coming directly from my phone. However, since the phone is syncs to the car, I would have thought the radio would also pause, or lower, when I’m receiving directions.

The whole experience has been seamless and satisfying. The best part is I can now listen to my podcasts when there’s nothing good playing on the radio.

Fragmented Customer Service

To add to last week’s post, Customer Service Failures Due to Poor Information Management, one challenge I didn’t name specifically is how fragmented customer service has become. This fragmented service also leads to poor results, confusion, and a lot of wasted time and effort. It’s quite common for companies to offer a variety of methods to get in touch. This includes chat services, email, phone, writing letters, and various social media applications like Twitter and Facebook. However, on the backend it’s likely that separate teams are managing all the feedback differently. This leads to information sprawl, ultimately resulting in poor experiences and lengthy resolutions.

Here’s another epic customer service failure I experienced precisely because of this reason. Something malfunctioned in my fridge causing it to make a loud, grinding noise. Luckily the warranty was still valid. The first time I called for service. A technician came to assess the problem. He determined I needed a new part. He gave me a ticket number and instructed me to call back to have the part ordered. I paid nothing for the visit.

For the follow up, I decided to try the online chat service instead of calling. This way I could avoid the long waits and irritating hold music. Here’s where the service derailed. Somehow the chat service couldn’t access my file. Instead of ordering the part, they sent a second technician to assess the fridge, from a different company. The second technician gave me the same instructions as the first time. I paid for this visit, expecting to be reimbursed.

Finally, the repair technician came. I paid for this visit, too. With the problem resolved, I submitted the receipts for reimbursement. The company paid for the repair technician, but not the second assessment because I’d already had one. After many frustrating calls and emails, I finally reached the manager. Basically he told me I shouldn’t have had to call for anything except the first assessment.

In hindsight, I realized part of the problem was switching from calling to chatting midway through the process. Though this shouldn’t have made a difference. The other problem was their miserable backend processes and poor system integration.

From my perspective, one possible solution is to centralize the systems and assign customers a unique identifier, e.g., an account number or case number. This makes it possible to search for the disparate pieces of information across the sprawl.